The Ever-Changing Edge of the Solar System
NASA Mission Shows Evolution of Conditions at Edge of Solar System
The IBEX has produced a new set of “all-sky” maps of our solar system’s interaction with the galaxy, allowing researchers to continue viewing and studying the interaction between our galaxy and Sun. The new maps reveal changing conditions in the region that separates the nearest reaches of our galaxy, called the local interstellar medium, from our heliosphere -- a protective bubble that shields and protects our solar system.
In October 2009, scientists announced that the first map data produced by IBEX revealed an unpredicted bright ribbon of energetic neutral atoms emanating toward the Sun from the edge of the solar system. This discovery was unexpected to scientists, because the ribbon of bright emissions did not resemble any previous theoretical models of the region.
The IBEX spacecraft creates sky maps by measuring and counting particles referred to as energetic neutral atoms that are created in an area of our solar system known as the interstellar boundary region.
This second set of all-sky maps, created using data collected during six months of observations, show the evolution of the interstellar boundary region. The maps help delineate the interstellar boundary region, the area at the edge of our solar system that shields it from most of the dangerous galactic cosmic radiation that would otherwise enter from interstellar space. The new findings were published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Space Physics, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.
The IBEX spacecraft was launched in October 2008. Its science objective was to discover the nature of the interactions between the solar wind and the interstellar medium at the edge of our solar system.
“This situational awareness provided by IBEX shows our place in space is not constant,” said Dick Fisher, director of the Heliophysics Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Better understanding of the dynamic environment of space is vital for successful planning for future exploration.” The goal of the Heliophysics Division is to understand the Sun and its interactions with Earth and the solar system.
The research is also important for astrobiologists. Our solar system supports the only known habitat for life as we know it - our home planet Earth. In order to search for habitable worlds around distant stars, astrobiologists must fully understand the conditions in our system that have allowed Earth to become habitable.